Pastor is robbed of his car, and the chase begins

BALTIMORE CRIME BEAT

November 05, 2008|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

The Rev. James W. Smith has spent his life "chasing after God."

That's what it says on the plaque he received at his retirement dinner four years ago this month. He turns 85 tomorrow, and he still preaches at Second Antioch Baptist Church on East Baltimore Street in Butchers Hill, where he served as pastor for 44 years.

Now he's chasing after the young man who robbed him.

On Saturday evening, Smith parked his gray Ford Taurus on Washington Street and started chatting with a teenage boy, perhaps as young as 14. The boy told Smith his father was a pastor, and he asked to see the church. Smith opened the side door and let him inside.

"He got between myself and the door, and told me, 'Give me your keys or I'm going to have to shoot you,' " Smith recalled. "I said, 'What did you say?' and he repeated, 'Give me your keys or I'm going to have to shoot you.' He told me [to] drop them on the floor. I dropped them on the floor, and he said, 'Don't follow me out.' "

Smith said the youth picked up the keys and walked outside. The preacher said he waited a few minutes and went to the door, "In time to see him drive away in my car."

He called police, and they took a report but have yet to find the car or the teen who took it.

I met with Smith at the church Monday evening. He proudly displayed photos taken at his retirement party, awards and a book he wrote many years ago. He showed how, at age 84, he could still lift one leg up and put it on a desk. He does this, he said, to inspire the young.

Smith talked about his family, his wife of 59 years, his daughter who is a retired teacher, another daughter who is an educator with the city.

"I've been dealing with children and young men, and hauling them around to the zoo and to places and to theaters, and nothing like this has ever happened to me in 84 years," Smith said of his encounter. "I raised seven brothers and sisters, and none of them have ever been to jail and all of them are living now."

I asked Smith what he would tell the boy should they meet.

"I would tell him that what he did is not the way of life," the preacher said, launching into a sermon this city needs to hear. "I would try to tell him to accept the Lord and change his ways by getting him involved in church and trying to get his life together. Drugs and alcohol and dope - these people who do these things think they have it going on. They think they have it all together. This is not the way of life."

The day after the attack, Smith was back in the church, preaching his Sunday sermon, during which he told the congregation what had happened. He read from the book of Isaiah: "Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall."

I've often heard police complain that today's youth don't understand the value of human life. Smith didn't just agree; he said it's worse than that. "The old people don't understand the value of life," he said. "No sir, they don't."

Smith then recalled seeing a story on the television news about a pastor who was killed; he couldn't remember where. (He might have been referring to a visiting pastor who was killed Saturday in a Kentucky church.)

He said he thought he could have been killed Saturday as well; that's why he didn't run after the young man, or activate the car alarm from his key remote before tossing it to the floor. He couldn't make sense of killing a man of God. "To kill a pastor," Smith said. "I mean, that person is your last hope."

That brought me to two final questions.

I asked Smith if he could identify the young man.

"I might and I might not be able to," he answered, pausing, as if I had backed him into an impossible corner.

"We have a devastating situation in our city," he continued. "I cannot handle it. You cannot handle it. The police cannot handle it. Now I'm in a situation, 'What would I do?' Do you not know the Crips and Bloods are having initiation ceremonies this month? Do you not know about the stop-snitching thing? If you go to court and you testify against someone, you might be able to make it back to your car alive. But you might not."

I asked Smith what should happen to the young man.

Without a hint of hesitation and with firm conviction, he said: "He should go to jail."

The preacher who has spent his life chasing God didn't chase after the youth on Saturday and might not chase him into prison. "I'm chasing after him in spirit," Smith said, "so that God might find his heart."

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